Dean Smith’s Aston Villa are experiencing their first slump in form during a campaign that had dared fans in believing that they’d be dusting down passports for Europe come next season.
Summer holidays might be on hold this year and so any swift European exit to Rapid Wien is thankfully off the cards too, but as we all crave a return to normality, Villa have been a welcome contradiction to the unprecedented past 12 months or so we’ve all endured. After all, having left Villa Park with relegation in the balance a year ago, when fans return to Villa Park, we could be watching the best team to pull on the claret and blue for over a decade.
Unfortunately, any trips to Europe’s most unique of football scenes will have to wait at least another year, as Villa’s mid-season slump has all but ended hopeful talk of a top-seven finish come May.
Though, as the club continues to push in the right direction, perspective is required to plot the long path in which Villa fell off over ten years ago. After missing the world-class Jack Grealish through injury in recent weeks, Villa have scored only three goals in the six games following and including his final game before being sidelined against Brighton – but ultimately, his absence would affect almost any team in world football.
Grealish’s battles with injuries have been both freakish and in part due to the nature of his unique game. Having won more fouls than any other Premier League player in a single season last year, which followed being fouled 149 times during his final Championship campaign the season before, it’s a miracle his absence isn’t more common.
Though, after missing 13 Championship games through the months of December to February, Grealish has a history of missing more than just the odd few games. After sustaining a freak kidney injury on the eve of the 2017/18 Championship season, Grealish also missed the first four months of his second Championship campaign.
Now, while Villa head coach Smith rightly refuses to give the opposition the leg-up by providing any concrete information on the severity of Grealish’s injury, it’s thought the captain’s return isn’t a million miles away.
Nonetheless, a recent loss to Sheffield United that preceded uninspiring draws to Wolves and Newcastle United have exposed the flaws amongst Smith’s side when star man Grealish isn’t there to help carry much of the creative load – a pressure he often thrives on.
In fact, Villa haven’t scored more than one goal in a game since an away defeat to Burnley, back in January, ten games ago. Winning four of the last 14 is hardly the run of form Villa have required to mount a serious bid for European football either, but even after a drab few weeks, there’s a project underway at Villa Park.
“Our job now is to try to benefit from the owners’ vision of the club, which is to go and compete for the highest honours,” Smith said at the start of Villa’s 2020/21 campaign.
“We want to try and mirror what Leicester City did in winning the title and Wolves getting into Europe. Those are our ambitions and our aims.”
Lofty goals perhaps, or simply the correct attitude of a boyhood Aston Villa fan determined to steer his club back to the glory days of yesteryear. Whichever way you choose to look at it, Villa are heading in the right direction.
Smith’s Villa have this season been lauded for an attacking brand of football, a watertight defence and indeed effective player recruitment – with every passing week we learn more about his intriguing side.
Little more needs to be said about Villa’s miraculous turnaround, from relegation certs to European hopefuls within the space of six months speaks volumes in itself. The finer details behind the club’s revival – and there’s no shortage of them – are revealing if not enthralling too.
Yet, in the same season that Villa demolished the league champions 7-2, a loss to ten-man Sheffield United – who might well finish the Premier League season with fewer points than that of Villa’s relegation side of 2016 – has proved that in these bizarre times, Villa can leave you picking your jaw up off the floor one night, and ruin your weekend before it even began the next.
Supplementing Dean Smith’s push for European football next season
As Grealish sat out Villa’s 1-0 win at Elland Road a few weeks back, his exclusion from a team who were set up to mitigate Marcelo Bielsa’s flying Leeds side wasn’t half felt as much when Smith’s team faced Newcastle and Wolves in recent weeks.
Three points on Yorkshire had temporarily masked the captain’s absence, as Villa would struggle to impose themselves on Wolves, and neither on Steve Bruce’s Newcastle. An encouraging first-half display against Wolves should’ve handed Villa the advantage before the break, and as Smith’s side have so often done after scoring first, see out the game from thereon.
Though, a second-half no-show against Nuno Espirito’s side would turn into a hangover on Tyneside with creativity seriously lacking at St. James’ Park. Without taking wins over Brighton, Sheffield United, Wolves or Newcastle since beating Arsenal at the beginning of February, Villa’s recent plight is worrying, but one that can help expose the holes in which Villa’s chiefs can set about attending to come the summer – every cloud and that.
Like last season, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens – who share a net worth wealthier than all but Sheikh Masnour and Roman Abramovich amongst fellow Premier League owners – will be keen to fund transfer activity as the new window rolls around in the coming months. Preparations for the transfer window will already be taking place and targets soon identified, just as they were last term.
“Wes Edens private-messaged a lot of us after West Ham to say congratulations,” John McGinn said after Villa clinched survival on the final day of last season.
“And basically to tell us that the club wasn’t going to rest there. He said they’d support us with new players and improve the depth of the squad to kick on.
“The owners made it clear that they want Villa back where we belong, challenging at the top end of English and European football.
“It’s not going to be easy. But we’re behind each other, backing each other. We’re on the same page.”
Having spent over £230 million on transfer fees alone since taking control of the club back in 2018, Sawiris and Edens have big plans for the football club.
Ambitious owners not short of a bob or two promising to take Aston Villa back to the elite podium of European football is no new phenomenon for Villa fans accustomed to the lofty aspirations of new investors.
The ownership of Aston Villa Football Club has been passed across four continents in the past 15 years with European tours, top-flight relegations and promotions the price of swapping the keys to Villa Park around the billionaires club all too often.
Regimes past and present have all shared the common goal of restoring Villa’s status as an elite European club, but so often in the past, these goals have failed to wash for Villans tired of false promises.
Perhaps matching Barcelona’s global appeal within five years of Dr Tony Xia walking into Villa Park were unrealistic, but actions speak louder than words and Sawiris and Edens are becoming quite the power couple.
The two billionaires have made their first statement of intent when rejecting Daniel Levy’s approach for prized asset Grealish, whose move to Tottenham was blocked when Sawiris and Edens swooped in to save Villa from financial ruin in 2018.
Winning promotion back to the Premier League through the playoffs a year earlier than expected was the first step achieved for NSWE who had big plans for Villa upon arrival back in the top flight. Smith hadn’t been in the job longer than eight months but Villa’s daring owners would put their money where their mouth is and back their head coach to the hill.
In reality, for Villa, they’d have a mountain to climb to survive relegation come the turn of the year with some slack performances to blame for underwhelming results on the field last season – the first time Premier League football had returned to Villa Park for three years.
Despite calls to replace Smith, CEO Christian Purslow and NSWE backed the man who guided the club back to the top flight, understanding that he was hamstrung for most of the campaign by matters off the field, and indeed the sheer volume of player turnover too before the
It was a sign that whilst Villa had it all still to do if survival was to be achieved in the Premier League, Purslow and Villa’s directors were keen to implement some much-needed continuity.
As a football club, Villa have been starved of continuity with negligent ownership regimes, on the whole, to blame for a decade of upheaval, from back to front, top to bottom. Players, managers and coaching staff have all been turned over at an insufficient rate.
Villa’s promotion partners Sheffield United, and current Premier League side Burnley are the two shining lights who represent where a bit of faith and trust can get you in the most demanding league of them all. Too often are football clubs these days desperate to chop and change with knee-jerk reactions and premature sackings a plenty.
Though, as Wilder’s time at Bramall Lane has come to an abrupt ending with relegation for the Blades an inevitability, Villa boss Smith is in fact one of the longer-serving managers in English football, and the club are all the better for trusting in their man.
The deep pockets of NSWE can only take a football club so far, but with the methodical and assured direction pointed out by Smith, Johan Lange and Purslow, Villa are in safe hands to steer closer to the dream of European football in the coming years.